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La Porte County officials warn residents to remain on guard against COVID-19
County experiences largest one-day surge in positive COVID-19 cases in several weeks

La PORTE — With the number of positive COVID-19 cases surging across America – including locally – La Porte County leaders are urging residents to be more vigilant than ever in protecting themselves and others.

On Wednesday, the La Porte County Board of Commissioners received an update from Health Department administrator Tony Mancuso, who reported the county saw 19 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Tuesday – the largest single-day increase in weeks.

Nine of those cases were inmates at the Westville Correctional Facility – the site of a massive coronavirus outbreak in April.

The local figures are in line with other parts of America, as many states, including Indiana, begin to scale back reopening plans in response to a spike in COVID-19. Among states seeing a recent uptick in positive cases are several of Indiana’s neighbors, including Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.

Although Indiana is not seeing a dramatic increase, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced he was pumping the brakes on the fifth and final stage of his reopening plan, slated to begin Saturday.

Instead, much of the state will enter “Phase 4.5,” which will keep current caps on public gatherings and occupancy limits for restaurants, bars and entertainment venues. This phase is set to last through July 17.

Speaking to the commissioners via Zoom, Mancuso said the recent growth in local cases comes as a growing number of residents are undergoing testing.

“Each day, we’re getting probably 100 tests,” he said. “That could be the reason we have a spike [in cases], but at least we’re getting a lot of tests done.”

Mancuso added that, despite the increase, there have not been any new outbreaks in local assisted living centers or nursing homes, which were hotspots in the previous surge. Local contact tracing is also going smoothly, he said.

Dr. Kristen Dauss, chief medical officer for the Indiana Department of Correction, also spoke to the commissioners remotely. She confirmed that Westville had around 18 inmates test positive in recent days, but they remain asymptomatic and have been placed in quarantine alongside others on their holding units.

Board President Sheila Matias remains concerned about the current trajectory of the pandemic.

With local beaches, bars and other social gathering spots packed since reopening, Matias is troubled by the fact that many residents appear to be ignoring federal prevention guidelines on social distancing and crowd sizes, she said.

She is also worried that some chose to not wear face coverings in public, especially those who chose not to do so for political reasons.

“Science is science, and the science is pretty clear, whether you are this party or that party, whether you are left or right,” Matias said.

She urged residents to continue practicing basic precautions – wearing masks, maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others when possible, and using good hand washing hygiene.

Citizens have a civic responsibility to follow the guidelines, Matias said, as they help keep themselves, their families and their neighbors – particularly those with underlying health conditions – healthy during this perilous period.

“As Americans, we are used to tough challenges,” she said. “Those tough challenges have created the sinew that makes America strong, that makes Americans resilient. Across the world, people talk about our creative spirit and our resilience. That’s what we need now.”

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'Divided We Fall' brings all sides of political spectrum together

MICHIGAN CITY – Tommie Billups considered himself to be just a little to the right politically, but after taking part in a documentary in which people from all sides came together to talk, he considers himself right in the middle.

“I’m neither Dem, nor GOP,” said the Michigan City resident, a 31-year-old single father of two. “I was center and I might lean slightly to the right. For the documentary I was labeled Red because my survey placed me more conservative.

“After this documentary I found myself dead center ... seeing both sides and understanding both perspectives. I’m now motivated to build bridges to connect people because of this experiment.”

The documentary – “Divided We Fall: Unity Without Tragedy”” – is “about the political divide in America and how we can fix the issue,” Billups said.

“I saw an ad on Facebook about the documentary and I submitted my information. I took a survey answering a few questions on where I stand on the political spectrum,” he said.

Filmed over three days in 2019 in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, Billups said it was “almost like a social experiment.”

Participants stayed in the same hotel, in different rooms. And while he was the only Northwest Indiana resident in the group, he did meet an old friend.

“A cool thing that happened was after spending three days together, myself and another cast member [Ernest Crim] realized that we grew up together and went to the same school [Mt. Greenwood in Chicago] as kids ... hadn’t seen him in 20-plus years.”

Much of the time was spent talking – and listening.

“During the day we would all meet for breakfast and have dialogue with the people sitting at our table. After that, we went to this old art space and had conversations on different issues. We’d break for lunch and have another session of conversation ...

“All the conversations were moderated ... By the end of the 48 hours, it was as if we all knew each other for years. To this day, most of us are still in communications and actually have met up and spent time together.”

He called it a life-altering experience.

“Being a part of this documentary was life-changing – 12 people from different sides of the political spectrum spent 48 hours together trying to figure out how we can have our differences and still maintain civility.

“The thing I learned is that people are more than just a political party. When we hear the words Republican and Democrat, we always envision the worst representation of either side.

“It’s always the extreme, and with social media and other platforms that require no interaction or relationship, it’s so easy to disregard the humanity of a person and prejudge them based on what party they are associated with,” Billups said.

“I learned that people have more in common than they do differences, and that we allow our political stance to have more value than the things that we have in common.

“At the end, we all agreed that the two-party system has done more to divide the world than to promote unity.”

He said he hopes the experience can help with one of his life goals.

Billups has a bachelor’s degree in Theology and teaches middle school in South Bend. He is the owner of SonSon Production, a media content and marketing business he started. And in his spare time, he’s a musician and motivational speaker.

“My life goal is to inspire the world,” he said. “Whether it’s through music, art, motivational speaking or humor, my desire is that by any interaction we share, you would be inspired to live life to the fullest and reach your potential.”

The participants in the 2019 filming are organizing an interactive Zoom cast conversation following Sunday’s broadcast of the documentary “to talk about the show and topics dealing with politics,” Billups said.

That covers a very wide range.

“We tackled issues such as racism in America, gun control, the mainstream media, police brutality, education and more ... One of the key takeaways that I got was the importance of understanding perspective.

“It is apparent that most people in this country don’t perceive reality the same. If two people are looking at the same picture and perceiving it differently, without relationship and conversation, it is impossible to get either party to understand the other,” he said.

“Everyone has different life experiences. How they view the world is based on those experiences. While one person’s reality may not be reality for another, it’s still their reality and is very real to them,” Billups said.

“Until we are able to view the world from another perspective without prejudgement, we can never truly understand each other and bring unity to the world.”

Michigan City man will stand trial, charged with baby's death, trying to have witnesses killed

MICHIGAN CITY — With just a month left before his trial, accused baby killer Brandon Lee Bottom has confirmed that he is ready to face a jury beginning Aug. 3.

Bottom, 26, appeared in La Porte Superior Court 1 for his final pretrial conference on Thursday.

He faces Level 1 felony counts of aggravated battery and neglect of a dependent resulting in death; as well as a Level 2 felony count of battery resulting in the death of a child under 14 stemming from the Feb. 5, 2019, death of his 8-week-old son.

Another Level 2 felony count of conspiracy to commit murder was tacked on earlier this year after Bottom was caught allegedly soliciting the Aryan Brotherhood to murder two of the witnesses against him.

According to the La Porte County Sheriff’s Department, Bottom’s infant son presented as “very pale with shallow breathing and unable to open his eyes” at the Franciscan Health Michigan City emergency room on Feb. 1, 2019.

Hospital staff determined the baby had sustained “injuries which are consistent with the shaking of a baby,” the probable cause affidavit states. That included a brain bleed; swelling of the brain; a dilated, unresponsive left pupil; and bruising along his right side.

The baby was airlifted to the University of Chicago Medicine – Comer Children’s Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries four days later.

During an autopsy conducted by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, the baby was determined to have a recently broken rib, as well as multiple other rib fractures in various stages of healing.

His cause of death was listed as “closed head injuries due to blunt force trauma,” and the manner of death was homicide.

Sheriff’s deputies note in the affidavit that Bottom’s 6-year-old daughter and her 10-year-old uncle provided forensic interviews indicating both had witnessed Bottom exhibit abusive behavior toward the baby.

The 10-year-old boy and his older sister, who is Bottom’s ex-girlfriend and the victim’s mother, are the two people Bottom allegedly wanted to have killed.

A deputy prosecutor told the court that Bottom had been offered a plea deal that would have allowed him to avoid the conspiracy charge, but he refused it.

Each of the two Level 1 felony counts carries a potential sentence of 20-40 years in the Indiana Department of Correction. The Level 2 felonies are punishable by 10-30 years apiece.

Bottom remains in lockup at the La Porte County Jail on a cash-only bond of $100,000 as he awaits trial.

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5 of 7 Michigan City Transit bus drivers test positive for COVID-19

MICHIGAN CITY — The city’s bus service will be cutting back its hours of service after several bus drivers tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Mayor’s Office.

“Recently, a few of the City’s transit bus drivers felt ill and submitted to COVID-19 testing,” a statement from the Mayor’s Office on Friday said. “Test results indicated that five of the seven employees tested positive for COVID-19.”

Those employees were immediately sent home to quarantine and self-isolate, according to the mayor. In addition, their respective buses were taken out of service and thoroughly sanitized.

Persons who have ridden MC Transit for the last couple weeks should not be worried, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office said.

“Throughout this whole pandemic, the City has taken and will continue to take numerous precautions recommended and outlined by the CDC to assure the safety of our passengers and drivers,” Chris Yagelski said.

“All of the safety and sanitation measures were in place from the beginning. There is a separation between the drivers and passengers with no contact. We also have had free rides to ensure no money transactions whatsoever.”

Those safety measures include:

daily sanitizing of buses throughout the day, conducted by separate staff and not the drivers

shields between drivers and the public

all rides free to assure no personal contact between drivers and riders

daily temperature checks for drivers

use of masks

As a result of the short-term reduction of available drivers, Michigan City Transit will begin a temporary operating schedule beginning Monday.

The Fixed Routes and Paratransit service will operate Monday-Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The commuter route TT-Black line will operate Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. until further notice.

There will be no service between 12:30-1:30 p.m. daily to sanitize buses.

There will also be no service on Saturday in observance of Independence Day.